Two mature women sitting and having a discussion

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Mental Health Lecturer Maureen Smojkis and Knowledge and Evidence Service Manager Rachel Posaner talk about supporting mental health in Higher Education and how Mental Health First Aid can be used to help. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to us all living in a time of great uncertainty, making 2020-21 one of the most challenging in recent times. The way we live our lives has altered dramatically, plans and dreams have been shattered, and the things we all did to maintain our wellbeing that included physical connection to others have changed in response to fear of contamination and risk to health. 

Prior to the pandemic, it was recognised that 1 person in 4 will experience some form of mental health issue in any year. At any given time 1 in 6 working age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health, such as disturbed sleep or fatigue, which do not meet the criteria for diagnosis. The Covid-19 pandemic and remote working and studying have made mental health more visible for students and staff in Higher Education.

One of the consequences of the pandemic is the increasing visibility of mental health in the public domain. A number of high profile people have shared their mental health experiences and this has encouraged others to be more open about their own issues. Being able to understand our own mental health and recognise when a member of our family, a colleague or friend is distressed or has a mental illness may help to prevent the difficulties escalating.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a global community that uses evidence based training to increase mental health literacy; the aim is to improve knowledge and empower communities to take action for better mental health.

When people feel safe to disclose mental distress, and they receive supportive responses, they are more likely to access the services needed for recovery or management of symptoms. This has been recognised and one initiative is the training of staff in MHFA across the university to support staff and students and signpost them to the get the help that they may find useful. Maureen Smojkis and Rachel Posaner are two of the people who are involved in MHFA in CoSS.

Maureen has been involved in mental health practice for a number of years and has a strong interest in supporting service users with mental health issues and staff who work alongside them; she brings this experience to the role of Academic Lead for MHFA.

Rachel manages the Knowledge and Evidence Service (KES) within the Health Services Management Centre, is a coach as part of POD’s Coaching Academy and has been a Mental Health First Aider within the College for two and half years. 

"Witnessing my husband’s experiences within his place of work, both during and on his return from having had time off due to a period of depression, fuelled my desire to become a Mental Health First Aider," says Rachel. "I didn’t know how or what his place of work should be putting into place to support him from a 'duty of care' perspective, but also on a personal level, I didn’t know what to do myself. I felt out of my depth, scared, and lonely."

"I have learnt a lot from being a Mental Health First Aider in terms of skills development, which has been beneficial to me both at home and at work. It has provided me with the knowledge that I have needed to be able to signpost people to relevant resources, but more than this, being a Mental Health First Aider has enabled me to further my skills in 'active listening,' to be able to identify possible non-verbal clues as to someone’s mental state and to not be afraid of proactively asking someone the simple question: 'Are you okay?'."

"Being a Mental Health First Aider isn’t always easy. It can be emotionally draining and understandably upsetting at times. However, for me it makes me feel that I’m doing something. I feel that I’m contributing, along with a great group of likeminded people, to removing the associated stigmas around mental illness, to raising organisational awareness of the issues relating to mental health and to supporting my colleagues during periods of need, when people come forward and say, 'You know what…I’m not okay'."

Our Mental Health First Aiders do not provide counselling services, nor do they give ongoing support and/or try and replace existing University Occupational Health services. What they do is provide that first level of support to someone in distress, listen without judgment, and signpost people to appropriate support either within the University or externally.

Staff: If you have a personal concern, or a concern about a colleague, or just want to talk something through, please contact one of the CoSS Mental Health First Aiders.

Students: There are a wide range of services in place to ensure that you are getting the most from your time as a student via the “Mental Health - Feelings First” webpage.

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Maureen Smojkis is College Lead for Mental Health First Aid and a qualified coach at the POD Coaching Academy. 

Rachel Posaner is a Mental Health First Aider at the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC) and a qualified coach with the POD Coaching Academy.